Conan the... Architect?!
Several of Conan's more advanced systems are also shaping up as the game approaches its launch. We had a glimpse of the crafting system, which looks similar to World of Warcraft's rather simplified mechanism - find a recipe, gather ingredients, and er, that's it actually. One twist on the formula could turn out to be interesting, though; it was suggested that gathering better ingredients to use with the same recipe could yield improved items. Details on this were scant, but the implication that you could forge the same weapon with a tougher metal and end up with a better piece of equipment is certainly interesting.
The ultimate expression of the crafting system in Conan, however, is not equipment - it's cities. Guilds will be able to build their own cities in the game, constructing a rising medieval metropolis on an instanced piece of land. Such an endeavour will require massive resources and high level crafting skills, of course - and there's even an Architect profession for crafters to pursue, allowing the construction of the most impressive buildings.
Architects aren't only useful for city-building, though. The game's vast Border Kingdoms zone, which is the major world PvP area in the game (most servers will offer only consensual PvP outside this zone), will offer the opportunity to build castles - and to lay siege to the walls of enemy castles, in huge PvP battles featuring up to 200 players. This kind of gameplay is Conan's real end-game, although it'll also be accessible to players who haven't hit the level cap (at level 80) just yet.
Various other game systems will also really come into their own in the Border Kingdoms. One of the aspects of combat we really like the look of is mounted combat - the ability to swing your sword from the back of a horse (or other mount, right the way up to gigantic wooly mammoths), rather than having to dismount to fight.
It's not quite as simple as doing battle from a horse, though; mounts take a while to get up to speed, have large turning circles, and provide a significant damage boost when they're running at full tilt. Inertia, see? Horseback combat will be a case of making multiple passes of a target, swinging each time; while on mammoths, the real power of the mount is its ability to knock down buildings and walls with its huge tusks.
PvP isn't restricted entirely to the Border Kingdoms, though - and nor is it restricted entirely to vast battles on an epic scale. Various other systems in the game exist for PvP players, ranging from the silly Drunken Brawls, which are essentially bar fights whose outcome is determined from the combination of drinks you've had, through to team-based games like Capture the Flag. The latter are quite nicely implemented in the game; there's actually a "game browser" in the game's own GUI, which allows you to hunt for and join games from anywhere in the world.
CTF in Conan is certainly an entertaining brawl - with the game's melee and magic classes translating surprisingly well into the traditional FPS game style. The map we had an opportunity to play was a well designed affair which funnelled players into close quarters as they traversed the space between two bases - keeping the melee interesting, while providing flag runners with plenty of route choices. With the right balance of classes, it could turn out to be a great bit of variety for the game.
Visit Scenic Hyboria
In terms of presentation, Conan certainly still has a few rough edges - the female models were being entirely overhauled when we played, resulting in a lot of bald Sinead O'Connor lookalikes prancing around the towns, and the animation is very ropy in places, with jarring transitions from one action to the next.
The performance of the game, however, was very solid for a pre-release MMOG, and the environments were suitably impressive - ranging from the dank gloom of Tortage by night (a story driven single-player experience which brings you up to level 20) through to a bright, snowy hillside and rural village we glimpsed later.
Character creation is something we weren't able to play with previously, so we were keen to have a look at that - and were hugely impressed with the work which Funcom have put into this aspect of the game. Naturally, every character you can create is masculine enough that he looks like he wrestles bears and has unnatural liaisons with gorillas, and it's almost compulsory to select an array of scars to adorn your flesh.
However, the game's controls for editing facial details are fantastic - each of the sliders is obvious and clearly labelled, and unlike many games which allow users a large degree of control over facial structure, the game avoids the trap of creating hideous aliens at the slightest provocation. Instead, a sensible set of controls mean that it's easy to make characters that look unique without looking horrifyingly deformed.
While we're very impressed with how some of the game mechanics and systems in Age of Conan are shaping up, we're under no illusions about the appeal of the game. Funcom has pinned its colours firmly to the mast by ramping up the level of violence and sexual content - and while it describes the game as a "mature" MMOG, we don't doubt that many adults will find that aspect offputting.
Certainly, there's more to the maturity of the game than just blood and boobs. Funcom's depth of experience in the adventure game genre, for instance, has contributed to a great dialogue and conversation system, and we're assured that this will feed into genuine moral choices and mature storytelling as the game progresses.
We hope this isn't lost in the gratuitous nature of some of the rest of the game. We're not sure if it was a bug or intentional, but the story NPC early in the game who informs you of the plight of her kidnapped younger brother, all while stroking herself and arching her back sensuously, didn't fill us with hope for genuinely mature handling of sexual subject matter.
Only time will tell how genuinely "mature" Conan really is - but in the meanwhile, we're happy to give the benefit of the doubt on the basis of the excellent combat and well-considered PvP. We're definitely looking forward to giving Conan's well-oiled pecs another appreciative rub come March.